‘Curriculum is technology’: Affordances of ePortfolios.

by Paul Maharg on 19/08/2017

This is the title of a plenary I gave in ANU on Friday at the launch of the university’s ePortfolio.  Slides at the tab above and on Slideshare.  I was also on the panel discussion, and later videotaped in interview for the website.  Sections of the talk:

  1. Research design and reflective journalling: a case study from professional legal education
  2. ePortfolios in active learning – student example
  3. ePortfolios in active learning research
  4. Rethinking the ePortfolio as genre: compare other genre affordances:
    1. explorer narratives
    2. Patchwork text(ing)
  5. The materiality of disciplinary learning in ePortfolios: the alternative to the box under the bed

Most of the examples I discussed were those from the Glasgow Graduate School of Law around a decade ago now, but remarkably, while the software looks well dated, the work of students and staff looks as fresh as if it were yesterday – a tribute to the outstanding work of my colleagues Karen Barton, Patricia McKellar and Fiona Westwood who worked on ePortfolio projects in the GGSL, and I acknowledged that throughout the presentation, as I did the work of the Learning Technologies Development Unit – Scott Walker, Michael Hughes, David Sams – in supporting the work of students and academics.

In most of the slides res ipsa loquitur, but sections four and five might need a bit more detail here.  In both I go a bit off piste, but I hope it serves to illustrate some fundamental interpretive and ontological issues to do with an ePortfolio, that most protean of digital educational tools.

We rarely think of an ePortfolio as a genre, and it might seem to be stretching the concept to apply it to the digital array of data on a screen.  But if we dispense with digital for a moment and just think of it on paper, what have we got?  An ePortfolio could be a collection of documents – a sort of lever-arch file.  Or it could also describe a specific type of writing, most typically a form of personal account, a diary, journal, confessional account, narrative of a journey, a collaboration, an analysis of a social learning event.  I made it clear at the start that it was the latter end of the spectrum I was thinking of  when think of genre (but with reservations: I think the lever-arch metaphor is also useful – more of that later).

Mungo ParkCompare an example of it in your mind with any explorer’s accounts of travels.  I took two of my favourites, and not only because they’re both Scots but because they’re both still unjustly neglected figures – Mungo Park (1771-1806) from the Borders, surgeon and botanist, who explored Africa in truly epic travels and died on his second expedition, tracing the source of the Niger; and John Rae (1813-93), an Orcadian and a surgeon and surveyor with the Hudson’s Bay Company, who lived with and learned from the Inuit John Raepeoples how to survive, travel astonishing distances in the harshest conditions and live off the land.  He surveyed the north-west Arctic coast of Canada, in the process and only with Inuit assistance finding some of the last sections of the fabled North-West Passage as well the remains of the Franklin Expedition.

There are many parallels between the two genres  – setting the scene, giving purpose for the journey, the preparation and setting out, the first encounters with Others, the Other land.  There is also the project(ion) of the self – the internal landscape of the physical self vs the external landscape of the mind.  There is also, too, the constant negotiation between new and conventional, eg relations with indigenous others who are almost never objectified as exotic by either explorer, but who would almost certainly be treated that way by Regency or Victorian readers.

Finally there is the process of writing.  Both explorers made field notes that are apparently contemporaneous, extempore, often made under immediate hardship or in reflections soon after; but which were subject to revisions for publication, and by others, too.  Park’s accounts especially have a freshness and vividness about them, a generosity going beyond curiosity that draws us into the narrative, and an apparent innocence – as if we’re reading unmediated, unfiltered reality.[1]  Each writer gives us compelling accounts, and in different ways – Park with his vivid, clarifying descriptions, Rae with his rambling digressions, Heroditean in length at times.  It may be clever devices or it may just be the natural styles of the authors.  Either way, the accounts are written not just for self but for others back in Scotland, or for publication or posterity, and the redrafting, even in the mind of the author, probably starts before pen touches paper.  ePortfolio writing, similarly, while it deals with accounts of the self, is almost never unedited, and a key element of ePortfolio education is guidance for students on who the audience is that will read the accounts of the self, and how that affects the writing process.  Working with students on approaches to writing that involve drafting and redrafting, and admitting our hesitancies, uncertainties in writing, is always useful.  After all, it could be argued that HE literacy practices too often socialise students into adopting a false mask of certainty and expertise in essay writing – surely not an honest account of what it is to be a scholar?

I described ePortfolios as being best used when the context requires their unique features.  That context often demands collaborative work by staff in designing its use, and collaborative work undertaken by students.  Some methods of writing in HE lend themselves easily to ePortfolios – simulation and PBL are obvious examples.  Less well-known is the approach to essay-writing known as Patchwork Texts.  In this heuristic, students share pieces of writing in small groups.  They keep a reflective diary on the process, private to each of them.  Each student reviews all his or her writing half-way through a course, looking for unifying themes.  The Patchwork Text is a selection of those writings, presented in an interpretive reflective framework.[2]ePortfolios can be useful, as MacAteer has pointed out, in enabling and recording the social learning that takes place in Patchwork Texts[3]

The final point I made was a more general one, that goes back to my distinction above about an ePortfolio being a form of writing or a container for writing – and at times both.  I described the extensive webcast and multimedia resources we created at the Glasgow Graduate School of Law, and how when we were researching the webcasts, students told us that they wanted to take them into practice and beyond, with them.  Two quotes, students talking, from our research:

‘You know, after the summer holidays I kinda wonder how much of this I’m going to remember. It could be a year down the line before I’m ever doing any Civil Court work and a lot of that will be forgotten. And it will be good to have that to go back to and be reminded, just again, even from just a confidence point of view, of the sort of way the court cases are carried out, even if it is just that. Then again video lectures are excellent because you can go back to them – “What was the procedure for the Options Hearing?”’

‘When I go on and do my traineeship you’ve got those materials there and it is not a case of finding the box under the bed where your lecture notes were stored 6 months previously … I have got something I can take into work with me and use on the computer. So it has been more than just a set of lectures it is a whole resource I can use for other things.’[4]

In those narrowband days (2004) we gave students CDs.  Now, why are we not giving them the resources for their entire programme online, in an ePortfolio, for them to take with them?  Law students would take with them their personal work, but also all the resources they’ve worked on in their degrees, and carry that massive body of personal knowledge, information and data with them for the rest of their lives.  And as alumna/i shouldn’t they also be entitled to the updates?  Ah I hear some say, you mean give away the crown jewels of our teaching?  But as the OU and MIT Opencourseware initiatives have so convincingly proven, the crown jewels are not the resources we provide students – that’s a typically institutional, faculty-oriented view, and it’s wrong.  The real crown jewels are twofold: first the parchment with your institution’s stamp and the student’s name, and second and far more important, the quality of student learning and experience in the programme.

Isn’t this the solution: to expand our ePortfolio horizon, to create a Massive Online Open Portfolio (a MOOP – you read of it here first…)?  And since we’re exploring utterly unknown lands now, let’s strap on our snowshoes and go further, appropriately to Norway, where the Ministry for Transport and Communications has been thinking magnificent, lifewide thoughts about MyData, and come up with a Nordic Model for human-centred personal data management and processing.